The Humans vol 1
Tom Neely (w), Keenan Marshall Keller (a), Kristina Collantes (c)
Image Comics, 2015
The Humans is a comic I enjoy, and it’s a comic that makes me antsy. Simple terms for a simple premise: it’s a book where all of the people are non-human primates. On the one hand, the one-step removal from regular humanity is fun and cool and expressive; it lets you project more of yourself and feel the emotional expression more keenly, perhaps. Then again the ethnicity/genus translation might or might not be considered within the American sections of the narrative (are all of the main characters, chimps, “white”, and the orang-utans not? Is that not a going concern?), but when we see the Vietnamese forces in a ‘Nam flashback someone has, it gets — for me — a little hard to keep the analytical brain suspended. I don’t think that mapping nationality to dominant indigenous non-human primate species is as smart of a creative choice as it is clever a motif. Okay?
So that’s “out of the way,” I’ve said it. I won’t mention it again, but it was quietly on my mind the whole time when reading. Quietly, persistently. I don’t have the right to bang any hammers here — that means neither gavel for yes, nor gavel for no. I’m in a “does this hurt people?” sort of limbo.
It’s a motorcycle comic, and in that way it’s a gorgeous beast. The cover to the first collected volume is taken from a rumble scene in the second issue, I think, and it is golden. Just about the best, most perfect image of motorcycle fighting I’ve ever seen or could imagine. If I was a tattoo sort of person, this’d be on my list. The confidence of it! Mayhem in the angles! The power in the reserved ink use, on those vicious speeding tires!
I asked artist Tom Neely if there were any girls in this comic, before I requested review copies, and he was like, there sure are! It’s true, there are, and I have no problem with their characterisation, or outfits (rare!), or integration into the structure of the story being told. I don’t feel like he lied. But I need to get more specific with that kind of ask: there are girls in it, but it is a story about men — the relationships between men, and feelings men have, but mostly it’s just a riot of a book about a lifestyle that communities of men have, or have had. It’s a man story. Obviously I find no hardship in appreciating such a thing, in the singular.
One thing that bothers me: mate. ‘Mate, actually. A diminutive from “Primate,” I guess? Like “Man,” as in “hey, man,” from “human.” But I’m English. When I hear “blah blah blah, ‘mate“, I get confused about where the heck this is set. I start reevaluating how these sentences should sound. You ever watch an OVA flicking between the Canadian dub and the original track? That’s the effect I got here. Can’t be helped.
I didn’t expect The Humans to be a period piece, but it is. It’s set in the early-mid seventies, and the chronology follows the return of a community member from ‘Nam to the biker gang his brother leads. That’s pretty interesting — in fact it’s interesting as heck, because war-fucked reintegration problems are largely where bike gangs came from, in America, originally. The mythology of them anyway. I mostly know about this from Quantum Leap.
There’s an episode where Jack Kerouac has a double cameo; he’s there to explain to a teen girl that “on the road” can be psychological rather than literal (she doesn’t have to destroy herself in the name of authenticity, is the gist). This girl has been travelling with her abusive boyfriend and his biker community. He’s late of the Korean War, and so are some or most of his fellow riders, and he’s not coping with the aftermath of having been at war at all well.
After large wars, military powers sell off surplus kit, such as motorcycles. Many people learn to ride motorcycles in wartime (like my Grannie!), and often in American history, men who got back to home soil and couldn’t face the thought of living like they used to, just … took off and lived in motion, effectively outside of the law.
It’s a smart thing to read from the roots of a phenomenon. To acknowledge the history of an aesthetic or subculture, or social legend, when you’re using it for your brand new comic. Culture by osmosis has made biker gangs seem isolated and inexplicable, or “just one of those things.” To the average pop culture consumer, they’re something like fairy rings. The history’s the mycelium, and exposing its underground makes the whole concept fresh again. Neely’s truncated linework harks to the greater recognisable aesthetic of “underground comix,” which was a mid-century scene just as much as biker gangs, adding a visual je ne sais quoi that thrillingly conducts the “bygone era” vibe. It’s obviously purposeful, in choice of artist and artistic choice. Neely’s Henry & Glenn has a more modern look, although there’s that recognisable, McKelvie-ish precision to his work across the board.
Gilbert Shelton, 1969:
Tom Neely, 2014:
A lot of things in The Humans are gross and base, or just base (which is easily mistakable for gross). Dicks get sucked with big titties out in the wind, and there are drugged up threesomes, pissing, puke, hallucinations, animal fights, and bugs getting eaten in prisoner of war camps. (Speaking of Quantum Leap — another thing I learned about war there and found reflected here: captured combatants so hungry they’d eat slugs and other crawlies, because hungry felt like dying, which it was. Where’d you learn this stuff? History books? Or pop fiction?)
It’s pretty cool by me, all of that stuff, because “ugly” is freedom of a sort. I’m sure its got its own meaning to people who aren’t girls, Neely and Keenan Marshall Keller wanted it that way for their own reasons. But like Juliet says, ugliness is something that women don’t get too much, in the media designed for us. It’s here, in The Humans (and it doesn’t use it to punish femininity). It’s a leveller! And that is cool! It’s good to be organic. Life is organic. Kristina Collates’ colours are woozy and lurid, even while they’re grimy. Mould colours, infected wound colours. Life, but nasty life. You can’t escape from their intensity, or the drab oppression they drag in sometimes. There’s a gang fight scene where the Humans are flat orange shades and their rivals, the Skabbs, flat green. It makes the scene so easy to read!
I like vomit in fiction because I vomit kind of a lot, I guess? I don’t know how the numbers pan out. But I get motion sickness (that’s why I ride a motorcycle instead of driving a car), I get nauseous during my period or swallowing zinc pills in the morning. I’ve been sick during a panic attack more than once. I hurl if I eat too soon in the morning. I want to see that bodily experience in stories because it allows me to really understand the stakes. Like you’re worried, but are you worried enough that I should care? Oh you were sick about it? Well okay then.
(And sure, those legs are hairy because that chick’s a chimp, but I’ll take what I can get on this representational frontier.)
There are things in this book I’m really, really into, and a Humans patch would look damn good on my jacket. It’s a comic that’s made with such forceful creativity, passion and vigour! You can feel the enjoyment and care, the we can do what we want! that’s cooked together by scripter, linesman and colourist and sent out by Image in packets. It’s taken me an age to talk it up because I didn’t know how to process my qualms and stay honest. There’s so much done with context, so much smart and inventive integration of cultural throwback; the final product has really interesting depth and texture. But the attempt to simply step over the problem of anti-blackness and racial caricature, when it comes to the “an ape/a man” visual, flies in the face of that. Is it a weakness? Is it cowardly or rude? Does it become a strength somehow? It’s clear to me that the creators do not intend to work in racism, they just want to make a cool fun monkey movie comic.
The characters we care about, admire and follow all have brown skin; they aren’t shown to us as “black characters”; the Orang-utans don’t bear noticeable resemblance to anti-black cartoons; if the chimpanzee people are white, then white analogues dominate the story. If that’s the case then there’s a lot of racial processing and navigation of age-old exclusionary viciousness to do for a story that’s effectively about white people.
I want to like The Humans without your sad old garden-variety political correctness getting in the way and making me wonder.
But I don’t.
I like it and I’m troubled. I don’t know enough about the world to feel sure. No human is an island…